The Prophet Of The PNT

With the fervor of a pulpit-pounding evangelist, Ron Strickland has wandered the land, preaching the gospel of the Pacific Northwest Trail he hoped to create.
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With the fervor of a pulpit-pounding evangelist, Ron Strickland has wandered the land, preaching the gospel of the Pacific Northwest Trail he hoped to create.

The lanky, narrow-boned man at my side spies two hikers headed our way. Ron Strickland steps to the side of the trail and slips his pack from his shoulders. He calmly glides his hand into the pack's top pocket as if he's done this a thousand times. Out comes a yellow pamphlet, which Strickland flips in his fingers to expose the prominent title to the dayhikers.

By the time the middle-age couple reaches us, the evangelist is ready, and my gaze has dropped to the dirt in embarrassment. Looking earnest, helpful, and not to be ignored, Strickland pipes up as the targets draw abreast. "Did you know you're hiking along the Pacific Northwest Trail?" he inquires.

"Why no," they respond, just a little startled by the directness of the question, as well as by the proffered brochure and business card. But they're intrigued, as it turns out, and I watch with growing fascination while Strickland proselytizes. The duo apparently owns a nearby restaurant, so Strickland suggests that they offer discounted meals to thru-hikers trekking the entire route from Montana to the Pacific Ocean.

"But how would we recognize such a hiker?" one asks.

"Simple," says Strickland, pulling down his sock, "by their tan lines."

By the time Strickland picks up his pack, the hikers have been converted into loyal supporters of a trail they'd never heard of until 10 minutes earlier. They stuff the brochure into a pocket and head back toward the parking lot while Strickland and I continue west.

We drop out of sight of Washington's famous poster-mountain, Shuksan, and flow through knee-high huckleberries in Swift Creek's headwaters. As dusk gathers, we barely make out the dark shape of a black bear scampering into the timberline forest. Suddenly, it's as if a heavenly light brightens the trail. The energy radiates from Strickland, a few paces ahead of me. Ecstatic, he explains that 2 weeks earlier he'd spent hours right here, thrashing through brush so thick he didn't know when the trail was underfoot. Tonight the path is clear, the brush at arm's length, and our feet effortlessly strike trail dirt even in the gloaming. Strickland stops frequently just to soak it all in. "It gladdens my heart to see this work," he understates in a mannered accent that's nearly British and certainly New England prep-school proper.

Moments such as this are like messages from heaven to Strickland, who has been toiling for nearly three decades to realize his dream of a 1,200-mile trail. He envisions it as one of America's great long-distance trails, a continuous ribbon of waffle-stomped dirt leading faithful hikers down from the jagged Rockies, across pine-shrouded ridges and sage-covered deserts, past glaciers and volcanoes, over island-studded inland seas, through drenching coastal forests, and finally into the heavenly realm of one of the world's great coastlines, where all good hikers must eventually rest. The rapture of the Pacific Northwest Trail.

A native Rhode Islander, Strickland was 26 years old and pursuing his doctorate in international studies in Georgetown, near Washington, DC, when he discovered the divine in a book by Northwest sage Harvey Manning. Upon reaching a mountaintop in Washington's North Cascades, an inspired Manning penned the words, "Tomorrow the Pacific Ocean!" Though heartfelt, the exaltation was uttered with Manning's characteristic tongue in cheek, given the long and often trail-less distance between the Cascade Crest and the continent's edge. Nevertheless, not long after his hyperbole was published, a letter landed in Manning's mailbox asking what progress he'd made in the Pacific's direction. The year was 1970, and a fervent Ron Strickland soon followed his correspondence westward to retrace Manning's route on the Boundary Trail. The notion of connecting, by foot, the continent's spine with its western edge seemed somehow pure, natural, and necessary. So he went west to see if "Tomorrow the Pacific Ocean!" might in fact be a true, if unintended, commandment.

Strickland emerged from the Northwestern wilderness a true believer. The Boundary Trail, with its sweeping alpine vistas, endless miles of wildflowers, and vast expanse of unroaded wilderness, confirmed the divinity of Manning's pronouncement. So Strickland continued west across the North Cascades, then traversed the Olympics as well, and didn't stop walking until he finally reached the Pacific. Manning's will was done. Strickland's mission was just beginning. The National Scenic Trail System was 2 years old, with but two designated routes-the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Strickland was determined to add another long path, this one traversing and connecting mountain ranges, rather than spanning them.

In the 1960s, well before his Northwest journey, Strickland had wanted to be a fighter pilot, but had dropped out of ROTC because his reflexes and eyesight weren't jet speed. "I'd have been the first one shot out of the sky," he admits. "The slow pace of long-distance hiking suits me much better." The late '60s saw Strickland enroll in graduate school and marry.

His studies dragged on during the early '70s while Strickland steeped himself ever more deeply in the twin subjects of trails and wilderness. Though his doctoral studies began in the international arena, his long hike in Washington state taught him to pursue his true passion: wilderness.

At home, the topics were academic and political, but each summer, as the snow melted from the high country, Strickland would make a multimonth pilgrimage west to scout and line up support for the PNT. Finally he changed his dissertation to "the congressional politics behind the Wilderness Act," a subject straight from his heart. He was, by his own definition, "a hopeless trails addict-that was all I could talk about back then." Even in bed, he would read to his wife from Thoreau and Sigurd Olson. And she would lobby him, unsuccessfully, for children. The pattern didn't change when, with Ph.D. in hand in 1976, he began to take "a variety of meaningless government jobs that taught me to hate bureaucracy." He believed ever more passionately in his dream and redoubled his campaign for a congressional study bill for the PNT. "All my free time went into the PNT," he remembers. "I wanted the PNT no matter how much work it would take."

It would take more than mere work. In 1977, while Strickland was west yet again, his wife called him and told him she was tired of his procrastination on the kids issue and not to bother coming back. "This pleased me fine," recalls Strickland, despite his deep affection for his wife, "because I wanted to work on the trail full time. So I quit my job, divorced my wife, and moved to Seattle."

At the end of that eventful summer, Strickland greeted the PNT's first thru-hikers, Janet Garner and Rex Bakel, as they ended their 3-month journey at Cape Alava, Washington. Garner went on to write a cover story about the hike for Backpacker (issue 34, September 1979). The hike itself was a dream Garner and Bakel had first picked up from Strickland's 1974 call to arms, also published in Backpacker (issue 7, Fall). Three more hikers completed the entire route later in 1977, the first of two dozen end-to-enders over the next decade. Strickland continued to scout improved linkages and incorporated the not-for-profit Pacific Northwest Trail Association. Local recruits in Idaho erected the first PNT trail signs that year, as well.

But not everyone believed in Strickland's dream. To his consternation, the most troublesome infidels came from the Northwest's conservation establishment; as a group, they were appalled and incensed by Strickland's "environmentally damaging trail idea," to quote Polly Dyer from the North Cascades Conservation Council. This puzzled Strickland because he wanted the PNT to be a "wilderness trail" with relatively difficult access and few signs or shelters. And, based on his extensive studies of the wilderness preservation system, he viewed hikers as defenders of wild places, allies in preservation. Still, many of the Northwest's leading conservationists believed that a nationally recognized trail would attract an abundance of backpackers, which to them was anathema to real wilderness. Grizzly researchers in Montana didn't want a trail through bear habitat. Seattle's The Mountaineers club objected to more people tromping tundra in the priceless North Cascades and Olympics. The Olympic Park Association sought to avoid "further depredations" of the tidal reaches. The USDA Forest Service feared funds being diverted from other trail efforts.

The unbelievers celebrated after the 1980 publication of the Final National Scenic Trail Study Report. The document, a joint effort of the Forest Service and National Park Service, admitted the PNT crossed "some of America's most breathtaking and varied landscapes," but still concluded, "it is overwhelmingly evident that development of the trail...is neither feasible nor desirable." Besides frightening bears and trampling tundra, the PNT would cost $39 to $106 million in taxpayer money, according to the study.

"But I'm not a person who takes 'no' for an answer," says Strickland. He changed his strategy to follow the model of the Appalachian Trail, which was built from the ground up with grassroots support, rather than from the top down by congressional fiat. In hindsight, he admits that he made a big mistake trying to legislate the trail before building a constituency in support of it. In 1982, Strickland moved trailside to Skagit County and began to recruit new volunteers to build the trail "inch by inch, shovelful by shovelful." Strickland maintained his travels, piecing together the route, proselytizing to land management officials, and building a flock of trail maintainers. In 1983, he made his own continuous end-to-end hike with Ted Hitzroth, a cartographer who would devote endless hours to mapping the trail for Strickland's guidebooks. PNT adherents stuck by Strickland's vision, negotiating quietly with landowners for easements, and building and hiking even without federal recognition. Harvey Manning, whose early jest changed Strickland's life, supported the trail from the sidelines. "I kept telling Ron not to fret about National Scenic Trail status, to forget it," he recalls. "The trail was happening without it."

And it still is, step by blistered step. North Cascades and Olympic National Parks, once opposed, now "endorse the trail in principle," largely because the Pacific Northwest Trail Association is willing to work with them regarding route location and because it helps the parks get more trail volunteers. Some Forest Service districts are actively cooperating with the PNTA's efforts, also to influence where the route is sited. At the end of 1999, for example, the Forest Service persuaded the PNTA to abandon the Swift Creek Trail (and its idea for a cable car crossing the creek) because grizzlies might someday den in this relatively pristine valley. The Mountaineers and certain old-guard conservation forces, however, remain as entrenched as ever, still fearing for grizzlies, the overuse of fragile alpine areas, and the waste of trail maintenance monies.

Despite the obstacles, Strickland's decades of nurturing have sprouted a dedicated PNTA. A few years ago, his evangelizing during an afternoon of Audubon Society birdwatching converted Joan Melcher. She quickly initiated her husband, Duane, a retired commercial flower-grower who now serves as chair of the PNTA. This energetic couple, who may never spend a night on the ground, nevertheless speak in reverential tones about "the Power of the Trail." They devote their weekends to leading work parties, carving and clearing the dream so that others may hike it. The Melchers, in turn, won over Keith McGee, a recently retired Ford Motor Company executive who arranged a $250,000 grant from Ford and the Northwest Ford Dealers Association. This grant allowed the PNTA to hire a fireball of energy named Jeri Krampetz. From her post as director of operations, she's already brought new levels of strategic vision, financing, and recruiting to the great aspiration of a rogue trail-lover. The Melchers, Krampetz, and a great many others are finding that creativity, cooperation, and volunteerism can accomplish cheaply what the government's 1980 report had claimed would cost vast amounts of taxpayer money.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Strickland's first exploratory hike toward the Pacific Ocean, but for the trail and its founder, the milestone is far more than mere chronology. During the past 12 months of hiking various parts of the route and interviewing dozens of people involved with the trail, I've come to embrace the vision personally and to believe that the critical moment has arrived when one man's vision becomes an unstoppable movement. I've met people who remember Strickland from decades-ago visits as a frugal eccentric wandering the remote byways of his proposed PNT. Occasionally, I've encountered folks who think Strickland's devotion has gone too far, his recruiting becoming more zealotry than boosterism. To my surprise, even some of his most ardent recent followers seem to have had enough of their minister's omnipresent hand. Says one, "He's the founder and the guidebook author, but now Ron should pull out completely." While ringing harsh, the sentiment in fact reflects a critical step in the evolution of the PNT, revealing a deep belief in the dream itself apart from the dreamer. These recruits look back at Strickland's previous decades as having been spent wandering in the wilderness, and they think that it's time to get things done right.

All of which suits Strickland just fine. "It's like watching children grow up and leave home," he sighs over the roar of our campstove beside the Swift Creek Trail. Still, he's smart-and tired-enough to see that he's come a long way since 1970 and that an independent PNTA is the best thing that could happen to his dream. "It has been an extraordinary thing to think up this idea and see it come to fruition," he muses, a little prematurely. "The way I see it now, I've been richly paid for those many years."

Strickland has already set his sights on hiking long-distance trails in Europe and on writing novels when he pulls out as chief prophet for the PNT. Before he can get to new dreams, though, he has one more summer of trail scouting and a year of writing for the second print edition of The Pacific Northwest Trail: A Guidebook, due out in 2001. Then he'll move on, satisfied that the trail will outlive him and that his decades of work will not have been in vain. He smiles, quietly sipping from a glass of red wine under an altar of old-growth Douglas fir. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon enough there really will be a trail stretching from the Continental Divide all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Expedition Planner

Do your tastes run to clearly marked trails leading from car door to car door? Then forget the Pacific Northwest Trail. This informal, typically unmarked, and in places rarely traveled route is a linkup of Forest Service trails, Native American routes, cattle paths, gravel and paved roads, clear-cuts, and more bushwhacking than you can shake a trekking pole at. Map and compass skills are required. The approximately 1,200 miles carry hikers through one of the most extraordinary and diverse collections of landscapes on earth, taking in rattlesnake-filled deserts, soggy rain forests, alpine passes, saltwater ferry rides, rural farmland, and howling-wolf wilderness.

The hiking: You can find good trails along most of the route, but some places are still as wild as they ever were. Don't venture there unless you have the appropriate skills, strength, and sense of adventure. This includes a healthy respect for grizzly bears, which haunt most of the PNT's route through western Montana. The guidebook lists "practical" alternatives to the "ideal" route when the latter spans too much brush or private property without easements. If you decide to go wild, respect the land you're wrestling through and watch your Leave No Trace manners in areas where an errant boot can kill a flower, erode the banks of a tundra stream, or damage the sensitive, work-in-progress relationships between PNT planners, environmentalists, and private property owners.

Building the dream: Several elaborate volunteer vacations are scheduled annually to help with trail building, and smaller work parties go out weekly throughout the year. The PNTA welcomes your membership in the organization, your time, and your money. See Contact, below, for the address.

Guidebook:The Pacific Northwest Trail: A Guidebook, by Ronald G. Strickland, is currently available only on floppy disk or CD in Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, from the PNTA (address below; $16). The print version, complete with topo maps, will be published in 2001 (Sasquatch Books, 800-775-0817; www.sasquatchbooks.

com; $18.95). The official PNT Field Observations handbook is available for free from the PNTA (address below).

Contact: Pacific Northwest Trail Association, (360) 854-9415; www.pnt.org; pnt@sos.net.

-J. Harlin